I’m Disgusting, He’s Disgusting, She’s Disgusting, Wouldn’t You Like to be Disgusting Too?

I watched the show Seinfeld. I loved Seinfeld. I found the character’s peculiar demands for hygienic excellence hilarious, until I witnessed two grown men discuss their superiority on the matter and form a friendship on that basis. They both agreed that the common habits of their fellow man were gross, they both agreed that one particular person, that all three of us knew, was gross, and they agreed that our employer’s bathroom was an absolute cesspool of germs. I laughed in the middle of this discussion, in the same manner I laughed at the Seinfeld character’s obsessive quirks, but these two men weren’t laughing. They had smiles, but they were beaming smiles, the kind of smiles that one gives in recognition of finding a like-minded soul at long last.

I used to think the national obsession with hygiene was just a well-designed, well-placed Seinfeld joke that we were all in on, with a wink and a nod, until I witnessed these two men form a friendship based on their hygienic demands for excellence. Theirs was not a normal standard that they required of their fellow man, but one that laid the foundation for their hygienic superiority.

“If you’re disgusting and you know it clap your hands!” is the perceived mantra of a major news network’s website that a number of my fellow co-workers visit. This site is a declared news website, but I know people that visit this site on a regular basis and they know little to nothing of the news of the day, but they always have some interesting little nugget about the manner in which we could all improve our hygienic standard of living a little.

“Your kitchen counter has more germs than your floor,” one of my co-workers said when he approached our lunchroom table. “Your dishrags and sponges are cesspools of germs, and using them on a continual basis doesn’t rid your kitchen of germs, it spreads them around,” he concluded. 

That’s right. A male said this. These sentences are not included to state that it is less than macho to be hygienic, but to point out that an obsession that was once believed to be indigenous to the white, female demographic has now crossed income brackets, social stations in life, and gender.

“Install a lighter colored counter top, so you can see germs better.” “Stainless steel is the best defense against the spread of germs.” “The most germ-ridden room in most homes is the kitchen, sometimes containing up to 200 times more fecal bacteria on the kitchen cutting board than on the bathroom toilet seat.” “Your fingertips can spread more germs than any tool in your kitchen.” 

The best way to avoid germs, it appears, is to avoid the kitchen, the bathroom, and your fingertips … They’re gross! The bathroom may be obvious, but what your bedroom? Furthermore, if you have any thoughts of going into the basement, you may want to think about investing in a gas mask and Tyvek suit with hood and boots. Your basement a cesspool teeming with pathogens no one can pronounce! It’s gross! Disinfect everything! Sanitize! Sterilize! We need more government research on this matter! We could get sick! We could die!

Our mothers taught us that the best way to avoid pathogens was to clean, but we’re now learning that being clean is nothing more than a good start. She didn’t know that the optimal way to avoid germs is to clean the cleaning products. She used the same sponge and dishrag for more than a week without dipping it into a solution that contained one part bleach to nine parts warm water. She didn’t know. She used the same cleaning products for more than one task with no knowledge of cross contaminants.

As CBS News Reports: “If you’re cleaning up appliances, counter tops, tables, et cetera, it’s almost mandatory that you use different cleaning agents. There should be different designated sponges for each function. After you clean up the debris from the meat carcass, place your sponge in this cleaning solution for about a minute or so. That will kill all of the potential pathogens.”{1} 

She didn’t know.

She didn’t even consider the idea of placing an industrial air shower to divide the kitchen from the rest of the house, because she was born in a generation that didn’t know such hygienic standards of excellence. She may not have considered putting an industrial strength, anti-radiation shower in her kitchen for better health practices, and greater avoidance of accidental pollination by pathogens. She didn’t have the information we do today, so how can we blame her? She didn’t know that it’s best to stay out of the kitchen altogether. Her generation wasn’t privy to the kind of research that has found that it’s probably safer to stay out of the house, unless that means going outside. The danger of leaving the house is so obvious that it’s not even worth exploring. We all know that the outside air is just teaming with pathogens, but our mother didn’t. She might have thought that going outside was safe. She didn’t have the information we do today. She didn’t know.

One of the worst things Seinfeld creators, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, brought to the American conversation is this hygienic conversation. These conversations did occur, in a sporadic manner, before the Seinfeld mindset began invading our culture, but in the aftermath of the great show, it seems every fifth conversation we hear now involves some form of obsession over cleanliness. We all thought that the character Jerry played was hilarious with his obsessions. We had no idea how influential this mindset would be. People now claim, with pride, that they don’t just wash their hands. They use a paper towel to open the bathroom door. “Oh, I know it!” the sympathetic listener proclaims with pride. “It’s gross!”

No one has a problem with cleanliness, or those that strive for greater hygienic practices, but when we obsess about it to such a degree that we begin to tip a scale into believing that we’re superior to another human being because we have better hygienic practices could it be said that we’ve stretched into the perverse?

A Psychology Today (PT) piece details this perversity stating that some obsessives will avoid a shopping cart that has a crumpled piece of paper in it {2}. Why do they do that? It’s gross. It’s evidence that someone used this shopping cart, at some point, since its creation. We all know, on some level, people use shopping carts, but we regard that evidence repellent. The simple solution is to select another cart, but how obnoxious is that? Why would we want to avoid one cart that has some evidence of another left behind for another that doesn’t have such obvious evidence? It would be one thing, if that cart had a crumbled piece of soiled tissue paper in it, but if it were nothing more than a crumpled ad for that store, why would anyone avoid using that cart? It’s evidence of other people, germs, pathogens, and a general lack of uncleanliness on the part of the store. It also initiates in us what the author of the PT piece describes as:

“A desire to keep that which is outside from getting inside.”

The thing about being disgusted is that it’s both learned and selective. If the hygienic person, that has obsessive characteristics, happens to see the person that left the crumpled ad from the store in the cart, and they find that person to be somewhat attractive, the PT piece states that they would not be as disgusted by the crumpled ad, and the subsequent use of that cart. If they judged that previous cart user to be gorgeous, they would be even less disgusted. To take this idea to its logical conclusion, if the hygienic person, with obsessive tendencies, saw that it was an attractive celebrity that left the crumpled ad in their cart, that customer may feel privileged to use that cart regardless what that celebrity’s hygienic practices are. They might even save that piece of paper, and take it home to tell their friends and family that the celebrity touched it. If the customer appeared to be somewhat overweight, or of foreign descent, they would be more apt select another cart.

Those that engage in obsessive, hygienic practices also tend to be less inclined to be friends with those who have physical disabilities.

“Just being exposed to images or information about illness leads some people to become less agreeable, less sociable, and to use automatic gestures that signify avoidance.”

This PT piece also suggests that if those obsessed with hygienic practices had someone force them to share a toothbrush with someone, they would be more inclined to share it with someone in their family over say the mailman. “This makes perfect sense,” the author of the PT piece writes, “For we are more familiar with the activities of our family member than we are the mailman. Plus, on a certain level, we assume that we have built up immunities to that which our family members carry on them on a day-to-day basis, because we’re around them every day.”

What doesn’t make as much sense to those that believe their disgust has philosophical purity, is the decision making process that concerns those outside our immediate realm. We view our boss, for example, as a stranger that exists outside our immediate realm. We may interact with our boss on a day-to-day basis, but not in the intimate manner, we will a family member. The natural inclination we have is to place them below our family members, but the study also suggests we place our boss below the weatherman on the list of people that we would share a toothbrush with, if forced to do so. If our overriding concern were hygiene, why would we prefer to share a toothbrush with a weatherman we’ve never met to a boss that we interact with on a day-to-day basis? A weatherman is often better looking. The weatherman is often more clean cut and better dressed, and we dislike our boss.

“Our attraction toward someone,” the PT author writes, “Can override our qualms about sharing body fluids.”

The piece does have one point of inconsistency in that one area of the article states that “Those that avoid objects touched by strangers report fewer colds, stomach bugs, and other infectious ailments,” and in another paragraph, it states “Exposure to benign bacteria stimulates the immune system so that it is better able to fight bad bacteria.” Perhaps the explanation resides in the word “benign” but other than that, the two purported facts appear to be a contradiction in terms.

The Origin of Disgust

Contrary to some myths on the net, disgust is not an innate emotion based on self-preservation. Rather, it is a learned behavior that increases every day with every news report and website link that we read. Despite the fact that a baby will make a face of disgust when they eat strained peas, that expression does not have a direct link to disgust. Studies suggest that they won’t know disgust until they’re three years old. If we were to make a look of disgust to a baby, say when we take out the garbage, the infant is more apt to think we’re mad at them for something than to associate the look with disgust, until they’re three years old.

This is why babies have no problem eating things they find on the floor. This is why they don’t have a problem crawling anywhere and everywhere. They don’t understand what is disgusting and what is not, no matter how often we tell them. It’s the reason my brother and his wife had to keep my nephew away from the dog dish, and it’s why he didn’t know any better. What was the difference between the water his parents served him in a bottle, and the water the dog just drank? Drinking the dog’s water may even result in better overall health for the child as they age, if we believe that doing so may strengthen their immunity system. Even after we achieve three years of age, says the PT piece, we don’t have a total understanding of disgust.

“It is the most advanced human emotion that requires reasoning, thought, and deduction. Humans are the lone animal with a brain advanced enough to process the complexity of disgust, and that knowledge occurs with experience and over time. It is also something we learn more and more about every day, and we get more and more “grossed out” by what could be deduced as minimal when it comes to actual infection.” 

It’s better to be safe than sorry is the most common response we get from those that are questioned about their obsession, and that’s from the few that will acknowledge an obsession of any sort. They may also add that their fellow Americans are not obsessed enough. If they were, these people might say, I wouldn’t have to be the way I am. So all these reports about pathogens, and sponges, and counter tops hit home with most people, until they’re afraid to enter their homes, or anyone else’s … or go outside.

George Carlin: “I never take any precautions against germs. I don’t shy away from people who sneeze and cough. I don’t wipe off the telephone, I don’t cover the toilet seat, and if I drop food on the floor, I pick it up and eat it!  My immune system gets lots of practice!  It is equipped with the biological equivalent of fully automatic military assault rifles, with night vision and laser scopes. And we have recently acquired phosphorous grenades, cluster bombs, and anti-personnel fragmentation mines.  

“Speaking of my colon, I want you to know I don’t automatically wash my hands every time I go to the bathroom okay? Can you deal with that? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. You know when I wash my hands? When I (expletive) on them!  That’s the only time. And you know how often that happens? Tops, TOPS, 2-3 times a week tops!  Maybe a little more frequently over the holidays, you know what I mean?” {3}


{2}Herz, Rachel. “The Cooties They Carry.” Psychology Today. August 2012. Pages 48-49.